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Callie House

Callie Guy House
~1861 – June 6, 1928
Notable: Activist
Nationality: American

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Show Notes

Callie Guy was born into slavery around 1861 in Rutherford County near Nashville, Tennessee. Guy was emancipated a few years later when the Civil War ended but grew up in the Jim Crow South. It’s unclear what happened to her father but as a child, Guy lived with her widowed mother, sister, and brother-in-law. Given the era, she received a limited primary school education.

In 1883, Guy married William House and their marriage produced five children. House helped to support the family by taking in laundry as a washerwoman and seamstress. Seeking better opportunities, the family eventually relocated to south Nashville.

By the 1890s some individuals and organizations were calling for reparations to be paid to the formerly enslaved and their descendants. Pamphlets promoting reparations movements circulated through Nashville’s Black community. House came across at least one of the pamphlets, the Freedmen’s Pension Bill: A Plea for American Freedmen which advocated for financial compensation for the past injustices of slavery.

Inspired by the pamphlet, House joined the pro-reparations movement. She partnered with Isaiah Dickerson, a Black political activist with past ties to a White newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1894 the pair established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association. The Association later received a charter in 1898.

House and Dickerson traveled to raise funds for relief and to support advocacy. The organization grew as dues-paying members joined newly created local chapters. Funds from the dues were used to help members who were sick or disabled and to cover funeral costs. At the national level, funds were used to organize conventions and cover expenses related to lobbying for a reparations bill.

House served as the organization’s leader and her 1897-1899 speaking tour helped grow membership to an estimated 300,000 by 1900. Yet, House and the association received a great deal of backlash. Prominent Black figures of the day such as Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois dismissed reparations, choosing to solely focus on education and civil rights. Newspapers belittled House and the organization’s activities. But likely most damaging was the response of White Southerners who took action against House.

As with other initiatives to improve conditions and provide opportunities for the previously enslaved and their descendants, White Southerners did all they could to obstruct the reparations movement. Complaints were filed that claimed House and the Ex-Slave Pension Association were defrauding its members. House and the association were placed under surveillance by the U.S. Pensions Bureau. She was notified that the US Post Office had issued a fraud order as authorities thought she was using the mail to commit fraud.

Under investigation by at least two government agencies, House resigned as assistant secretary of the Ex-Slave Pension Association in 1902. She continued to work within the organization, organizing chapters. When an anticipated reparations bill stalled in Congress, House changed tactics. She worked with Cornelius Jones, an attorney, to sue the Treasury Department for about $70 million based on cotton taxes related to Texas slave labor. The 1915 suit renewed interest in and discussions about reparations but was eventually thrown out as the court of appeals deemed the government immune from litigation.

The following year the Postmaster General and Nashville District Attorney retaliated by filing suit against House and other officers of the Ex-Slave Pension Association. The evidence in both suits was scant, no victims were identified, and their supposedly misleading circulars made no claims that reparations were imminent but rather that funds would be used to advocate for reparations. In addition, there was no proof that House or any of the other officers made unreasonable or unethical personal use of the funds. House had no material possessions that might raise eyebrows and still lived in the same home.

Yet, it should not come as a surprise that House was convicted of mail fraud by an all-White male jury. She was sentenced to a year and a day in jail at the Missouri State Penitentiary. House served nine months of her sentence and was released early on August 1, 1918, for good behavior. She returned to south Nashville and once again supported herself as a laundress.

The government investigations and indictments effectively dismantled the national efforts of the Ex-Slave Pension Association. But other individuals and organizations would take inspiration from House and the Ex-Slave Pension Association. Callie Guy House died from cancer on June 6, 1928, and is buried in an unmarked grave in Nashville’s Mt. Ararat Cemetery. In recent years, a group of Harvard professors and Black women’s rights organizations launched a petition to have President Biden posthumously pardon Callie Guy House.

Sources

  1. Chandler, D. L. 2018. “Little Known Black History Fact: Callie House.” BlackAmericaWeb.Com. August 15, 2018. https://blackamericaweb.com/2018/08/15/little-known-black-history-fact-callie-house/.
  2. Curry, Andrew. 2010. “Callie Guy House (ca. 1861-1928).” BlackPast.Org. July 6, 2010. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/callie-house-c-1861-1928/.
  3. Gooch, Bonita. 2024. “Callie Guy House: The Ex-Slave Who Fought for Reparations.” The Community Voice. The Voice Media. February 21, 2024. https://www.communityvoiceks.com/2024/02/25/callie-guy-house-the-ex-slave-who-fought-for-reparations/.
  4. Herszenhorn, Miles J. 2022. “Harvard Professors Call on Biden to Issue Posthumous Pardon for Reparations Advocate Callie House.” The Harvard Crimson. The Harvard Crimson, Inc. September 22, 2022. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/9/22/callie-house-presidential-pardon-reparations/.
  5. Reed, Rachel. 2022. “Justice for the ‘Foremother of the Reparations Movement.’” Harvard Law School. The President and Fellows of Harvard College. September 23, 2022. https://hls.harvard.edu/today/justice-for-the-foremother-of-the-reparations-movement/.
  6. Robinson, Stephanie. 2022. “Callie House, Foremother of the Reparations Movement, Deserves a Posthumous Pardon.” TheGrio. September 30, 2022. https://thegrio.com/2022/09/30/callie-house-foremother-of-the-reparations-movement-deserves-a-posthumous-pardon/.
  7. Statom, Virgil E. 2018. “House, Callie.” Tennessee Encyclopedia. Tennessee Historical Society. March 1, 2018. https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/callie-house/.

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